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In ‘Selected Stories’ how far could Munro be seen as a feminist writer?

In ‘Selected Stories’ Alice Munro presents women and their place in society in a variety of ways. Some
critics call her a feminist writer, or “a writer on the side of women”1. Feminism itself is “a doctrine or
movement that advocates equal rights for women”2 and literature is a versatile medium for the promotion
of women’s rights in the 20th century. Using the short story form she portrays women living in small-town
Canada; she is a modern Canadian writer and was brought up in this landscape. In addition to
investigating the roles of women, Munro’s stories also explore the idea of barriers - including class and
generation gaps - and the effect of relationships on her female characters. As all of her central characters
are girls or women, it is inevitable that her stories will explore situations from a female perspective, and
be inclined towards a woman’s outlook and discovery of feelings and attitudes.

From ‘Selected Stories’ I have chosen ‘Postcard’, ‘The Beggar Maid’ and ‘Carried Away’, written in
1968, 1978 and 1994 respectively. These span her writing career and so show that although her style has
developed Munro still explores similar themes throughout her writing. Each reflects a woman’s view of
her surroundings and relationships, but each character is at a different stage of her life. ‘Postcard’ is
written in the first person and Munro is showing the issues of class and gender in small town life. It looks
at different roles within this kind of society, for both women and men. ‘The Beggar Maid’ shows Rose in
a similar town, but this story explores how intelligence in a woman during the era this story is set results
in the girls becoming almost disconnected from their peers, plus the chasm between classes. ‘Carried
Away’ is written in a semi-epistolary form and shows the correspondence between a young librarian and a
soldier fighting in the Second World War. The librarian, Louisa is constructed as another strong,
intelligent woman and using the epistolary form and other devices Munro shows not only Louisa’s point
of view, but also how male characters view and judge her. This makes these three stories insightful and
valuable in deciding whether Munro is a feminist writer.

Helen Louise’s character is set up as strong-minded from the beginning of the story when she comments
‘Hawes doesn’t pick on me, knowing I wouldn’t take it if he did.’ The reader understands from this first
paragraph that the character is not a young, complacent girl, but a woman who can stand up for herself.
However this is juxtaposed with Clare’s postcard in which he tells her to ‘Be a good girl.’ This
contradiction right at the beginning prepares the reader for conflicts between a woman’s disposition and
the male characters’ views of her. The publishing date of this story is significant here because the Sixties
saw the birth and rise of feminism, and a general upheaval and challenging of society’s values. Within the
story, the rendering of the male characters shows a less favourable image of men. It could be argued that
Clare misled Helen into believing that their relationship was fine, and so this would be a comment on
men’s exploitation of women. However there are points in the book where it seems that Helen Louise has
misread the signs, (‘ “Is that what he told you?” “It’s understood” “Well imagine”‘). Taken one way this
would not be an obvious feminist stance but from previous experience with Munro’s writing, it seems
more likely that it could be that statement about how problems like this affect all women, even if some of
the blame falls on them.

Buddy Shields is another important male character in ‘Postcard’, and he repeats the sentiment ‘be a good
girl’ at the end of the story. He also makes such cutting, stereotyping remarks as ‘…as a nice lady would’
and a rather patronising ‘Go on home.’ and ‘Now aren’t you sorry you made all this big fuss?’ Despite
being a grown woman, men in Jubilee treat Helen Louise as a child, showing how women are considered
in this society. The protagonist is female and so the most developed character; the male characters have
less background and personality to them. It could be said that this sets them up as stereotypes, an example
of a typical type of person rather than individuals. The characters in Jubilee, and especially the men,
represent people and attitudes in the world outside of small town life; Jubilee is a microcosm of society in
general. People like Buddy Shields and Clare exist in larger forms elsewhere.

Myszor, Frank The Modern Short Story Cambridge: CUP, 2001
Collins Dictionary of the English Language
In ‘The Beggar Maid’, although not in first person, the reader sees everything from Rose’s point of view,
binding us to her side despite the fact that sometimes the reader may find it hard to sympathise with her.
‘The Beggar Maid’ also contains themes of class, as well as gender – Rose is from a lower class than the
rich Patrick, even if the upper classes aren’t shown in a particularly good light (‘She had never imagined
so much true malevolence collected in one place’) During the Seventies literature with social themes
became popular, especially racism and class, and in the later years of the decade, independence and
freedom. The sexual revolution continued from the decade before, and there was an increase in divorce
rates, single parents and pre-marital sex. These changes in society can be seen in ‘The Beggar Maid’.
However, Patrick himself is a weak character, and this story seems to show that men need women just as
women need men. Patrick does actually say on a couple of occasions ‘I need you so much!’ or variations
on that. Whether these dependencies on the other sex advocates equal rights for women and men is
arguable. Small, everyday prejudices are shown by comments such as ‘I wish I could have met your
father’ by Patrick, and this appears to be Munro observing ‘normal’ discrimination rather than outright
sexism. Again I think this is an example of male characters being representative of men in general instead
of them being individuals, despite Patrick’s major part in the story.

Dr Henshawe is an interesting character in ‘The Beggar Maid’ and could be read as a representation of
what an intelligent woman with ambition could become. She lives alone and there is no evidence of her
ever having a family. She lives without men and refers to Patrick as ‘The poor young man’ and Rose
comments that Dr Henshawe pities men for being what they are. She is either an example of a woman
who doesn’t need men ending up alone, or proof that feminism (“advocating equal rights for women”)
just isn’t happening, and that to be an intelligent woman in society she still has to sacrifice the feminine
part of her. In an equal world, Dr Henshawe should be able to succeed with a career and have a partner or
family if she so wished. The ambiguity is whether she actually wants this. She is a character that could be
interpreted in many different ways.

In ‘Carried Away’ Louisa is also set up as a strong character from the beginning, as in ‘Postcard’. The
dentist tells her ‘he had never before seen a woman touch wine or spirits’. From this the reader can see
she is not a typical woman of the era this story is set in. By the Nineties, when ‘Carried Away’ was
published, women are empowered and are theoretically seen as equal to men. The modern woman is
independent; they can be in positions of power and are not expected to need a man to rely on. It appears
that elements of this ‘modern woman’ have been transferred to Louisa in this story, which could have
been around 60 years earlier. It may be true that the issues of mistreatment of women by men spans the
ages, and is as much a problem in the time this short story was written as the time it was set. This seems
to be a perennial concern of Munro’s, as shown by ‘The Beggar Maid’ and ‘Postcard’.

The male opinion is shown in ‘Carried Away’ effectively, as the narrative swaps from Louisa’s
perspective to that of Jim Frarey. His thoughts are that the only likely reason that Louisa would have
‘perked up’ was a boyfriend or the ‘husband prospects’ running out. The language used in the description
of Louisa by Jim is colloquial and could almost be considered a typical ‘male gaze’ analysis of a woman.
Arthur also has a part of the narrative from his perspective. The noteworthy device here is that Arthur
refers to Louisa as ‘The Librarian’ and never uses her name. Of course Arthur and Louisa marry in the
end, but before this there is a sense that Arthur considers Louisa an object, even just something that fulfils
a role in the town. The other, rather elusive man that plays an important part in the story is Jack Agnew.
He starts as a character with an almost touching sincerity in his first letters, but by the end of their
correspondence has obviously played with Louisa’s emotions. He may just have got ‘carried away’ but
one could question if a woman had acted in a similar way towards a man whether there would have been
an outrage in the town, or even whether the man would have felt like he could have publicly reacted. With
this, Munro could be commenting on how the women were constrained by the society they were living in.

It is obvious that Munro is commenting on the position of women in society in some of her stories, but
this could also just be because she writes about the lives of women and the environment surrounding them
and so it is inevitable that this will emerge even without a particularly feminist standpoint. However,
writers’ opinions will often be threaded through a story in a less obvious way. With the many devices used
by Munro, her beliefs are likely to appear in her writing. Munro could easily be called ‘a writer on the
side of women” but whether this can be classified as feminism is uncertain. As Mona Simpson wrote:
“she isn't precisely subversive, but neither is she romantic.”3 Her characters certainly aren’t the typical
feminist models – strong, powerful women who can control their relationships with men confidently,
rather than being used and undermined. They are almost ‘defective’: dependent and maybe even too
trusting of the men that affect their lives. On the other hand, as most obvious in ‘The Beggar Maid’, the
female characters still do not meet the weak, exploited stereotype one might expect to be presented in a
story that is making a comment on the state of gender equality. This seems to make the characters more
realistic and easier to relate to, particularly for the female reader, and not some typecast pathetic character
that had no chance against the masculine world they live in. The ‘normalness’ of these imperfect
characters focuses the struggle down to a personal level, and so shows how inequality affects the person,
not a patronised ideal of a woman. In this way Munro could be seen as highlighting problems in a
feminist manner.

Mona Simpson (December 2006) True North, A Review, The Atlantic Monthly